Plague Diary, Part 4: “Don’t call me at home, ’cause I won’t be there.”

April 24, 2020

I sit in my car, parked in the middle of the bustling grocery store parking lot. I’m trying to gather the motivation to actually get out of the car and walk into the building, grab a sanitized cart, follow arrow stickers on the floor through a maze of one-way aisles crowded with strangers who, like me, are trying to social distance but also actually find all the shit they came here for.

Through my windshield, I watch a young woman in a lab coat stand in an empty parking space, eating a chocolate bar. A standard disposable mask hangs down around her neck. Standing in front of her is a guy, the very image of a Parma, Ohio bro: branded T-shirt and ill-fitted jeans, his black Dodge Neon from the early ‘aughts parked behind him. He hugs the woman close, embraces her tightly against his chest in the middle of the empty parking space. They kiss. It’s romantic. After the kiss, he buries his face in her neck and keeps holding her for a long moment.

They part. He gets in his car. The young woman stands watching, bites the chocolate bar, calls out “I love you” at his open windows. He says I love you back. When he starts his car, a song comes on at full volume, something about shaking that ass. The woman laughs and the guy waves to her, stretching his arm out the window, reaching backward as he pulls away.

. . .

            When I visit my grandma, I pace the bottom step of her porch while she stands behind the screen door. A few times, we walk a few blocks through her neighborhood, matching pace on opposite sides of the street while talking on the phone with each other. She hasn’t left her house, save for the walks, since early March. She watches Mass on a live stream and takes her Silver Sneakers workout classes over Facebook. My mom shops for Grandma’s main groceries, and I venture to another store for Grandma’s coffee pods and other various items.

But she’s bored, antsy to get out of the house, even though she knows it’s not the time yet and might not be for a while. A long while.

On her Facebook, she re-posts: I’d rather miss my family and friends for a few months than never see them again! Share if you agree!

Before the virus, we often had lunch together at her kitchen table, chatting about anything and everything. Now, I still try to visit in the way that I can, and I tell her about my adventures in the outside world. I describe to her the various makeshift PPE I’ve seen in the public: a man in a painter’s mask and gardening gloves, a woman with a tissue over her mouth and taped to her cheeks, a tall guy with a dishtowel wrapped around the bottom half of his face and secured with a chip clip.

I really want to hug her. But I can’t risk it. For now, I have to settle for making her laugh.

. . .

My grandma says that when this is all over, she’s going to get up early and go to Aldi. Then she’s going to have breakfast at a restaurant. She’s going to sit down and eat in. Next, she will go to another store, then to lunch, and then she’s going somewhere to walk around, and then to dinner.

“I told your Mom,” she says, “when this is all over, you better be calling me on my cell phone. Don’t call my house, ‘cause I won’t be there.”

. . .

            In the grocery store parking lot, I watch an older, barrel-shaped man in a tracksuit and gold chain necklace push a cart into a light pole. His face is covered from his chin to the bottoms of his eyes with a medical mask. He leaves the cart and returns to his car, where a woman holds a wet wipe out the passenger window, like an old-time lady waving a handkerchief to her lover. He takes it and wipes his hands, and gets in.

. . .

            After I get home and put away all the groceries, Patrick and I decide to have a fire out in the backyard. The evening draws down around us, cool but not cold. Deer skirt the wooded edge of our yard, nibbling emerging leaves, eating up seedlings.

Out in the world, the now-vague somewhere beyond this yard, people gathered on capitol steps to protest the quarantine.

I tell Patrick, “I wish I could just go crazy and riot. Not like these people, not for the economy or anything, just in general. But I don’t want people to get infected.”

“I know,” he says.

I hunch toward the fire on my tree-stump chair. Sitting in firelight, nearly crouching, I feel like a cowboy, or someone from a time even longer ago.  “But if the virus wasn’t going on? I mean, I’m bored, and I’m pissed off,” I say. “And I’ve always kind of wanted to partake in crowd hysteria.”

“Um, why?” Patrick has been reading The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. Sometimes he reads me parts of it that strike him, which as it turns out is a lot of the book. “This reminded me of you,” he says, and reads me a part about the kind of people who join riots, who revel in chaos. “The author says a lot of those people are artists,” Patrick says. “But not like, successful artists—”

“This reminded you of me? Ouch,” I interrupt, half-joking.

But he goes on to explain that it’s the people who are frustrated, deeply frustrated, by the fact that they can’t create the art or the reality that they want. Even if what they create is good, they don’t see it that way. Nothing lives up to their ideas, their expectations. So what’s the point? Burn it all down. Start from scratch. Or just keep burning and burning and burning.

And I have to admit that I can see why that part reminded Patrick of me. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to be caught up in a crowd like that, throwing bricks, smashing glass, flipping cars. The violence of crowd mentality isn’t appealing. But the freedom to finally express, wildly, all the pent-up emotions a person can feel—that’s what I fantasize about.

Maybe, really, I want to be caught up in a dancing plague: whirling and swaying and leaping, more and more people joining in the wild, senseless, tireless dance, until someone decides there’s no choice but to play music to go along.

I realize that I’ve accidentally imagined the scenario backwards. In this daydream, I am not caught up in the crowd—I am the first dancer in the plague.

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